Simplifying TV

The recent write up of Avner Ronan’s chat with Mark Cuban has pushed me to shine up and publish this article. I’m coming at it from the perspective of a frustrated user and ‘consumer’, but my focus is on the equipment used to view the TV & movies that I watch. Obviously there are huge infrastructure and international challenges in the way that TV is currently distributed and that is probably another article, this is more a device ‘wishing’ piece.

When did TVs stop being simple? I realise there’s a lot more content and devices these days, but even since the arrival of the VHS things have got a lot more complicated. My coffee table heaves under the weight of multiple remote controls and there is constant switching of sources. AV1. AV2. HDMI4. Which one changes the volume? Am I on the satellite box? How do connect up my DVD player? Ugh.

It need not be this way, please TV manufacturers of the world take this concept and use it.

There are currently several ways to consume TV and movies:

  • A live broadcast source:

    Analogue TV, Digital TV, Satellite receiver (possibly HD), Cable (possibly HD)

  • Removable media:

    DVD, Blu-ray, VCD (?) & the late HD-DVD

  • Storage / PVR:

    Suspiciously downloaded TV, External recorder (DVD, hard disk or VHS), a built in hard-disk based recorder to a cable or satellite system (e.g. Sky+)

  • Online:

    Movie/TV services (iTunes, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Daily Show, Hulu depending on your territory), Other sources (Youtube, TED)

  • Consoles

What I propose is building a lot of this functionality into the screen itself, but with flexibility. TVs need to stop adding dreadful widgets (another way to find out the weather without looking out of the window!) and build an operating system that is capable of a few basic things.

  • Showing ‘live’ TV
  • Recording ‘live’ TV for later
  • Running video from network attached storage
  • Running video from online services
  • Running video from saved ‘live’ TV
  • Running video from a disc-based source
  • A decent EPG - seriously how hard can it be?

Now I know we’re beginning to get to a place where we have boxes that do certain bits pretty well.

  • I’ve used Plex on a TV-attached Mac Mini for my movies and TV and don’t bother with a live TV source at all.
  • The new boxee interface (and box) is much better, although why I care my friends are watching Glee I don’t know, no offence.
  • The AppleTV has a great look but is pretty much useless unless you’re the ultimate Apple fanboy who only buys movies through iTunes.

But that’s only the online and network attached storage use cases. You still have to juggle multiple remotes to switch sources and change volumes. A user shouldn’t need to know where their content comes from when they just want to watch something. What about the end to end user experience? Why so complicated?

Step 1 - Live TV

When I purchased my first flat in 2003, I also made the financially outlandish (at the time) purchase of a Panasonic series 4 plasma screen. In this early stage of the flatscreen revolution you had to purchase ‘boards’ that you would plug into the back of the screen to give you anything other than the included VGA input. A SCART socket, buy the board. A set of component inputs, buy the board. A TV tuner, buy the board.

This meant you could effectively customize your own television. What I’m proposing is an extension of the same system.

There should be one TV source for the screen. Stop building tuners into TVs that aren’t being used. If I want to use satellite TV let it the one and only source, and build it in. An end to switching to an external output to watch my main TV source.

By all means provide a physically plugable system so you can switch out sources, such as found in that initial plasma generation, but give me one ‘live’ broadcast source. I don’t know anyone why subscribes to Sky who also wants the option to subscribe to Virgin cable or who would chose to switch back to the internal tuner to watch the free to air channels.

Step 2 - EPG and broadcast recording

For recording TiVo is clearly the leader. If you live in the US. Otherwise you’re buggered. Sky+ and it’s sister cable boxes and built-in PVRs also do a decent job. But in this brave new world of a single ‘live’ TV source lets have the TV OS do the heavy lifting and just have a slot for a standard 3.5”/2.5” hard disk in the back of the TV. Hell, why not put it in a special enclosure and charge us more, like Microsoft do for the Xbox 360 Hard Disk.

The EPG is another beast entirely, there’s probably another (lengthy) article in here, but lets just say I’d really like to be able to set the order of channels myself and hide channels I don’t care about for a start. Up and down on the remote uses this list and doesn’t suddenly include channels with a message to subscribe to this encrypted channel. Cool? Cool.

Step 3 - Saved media

Obviously you should be able to play back the ‘live’ TV you saved to the built in hard disk.

Plex and boxee both do a pretty stand up job of categorising downloaded and ripped movies and TV using imdb.com and thetvdb.com and they also have an ‘apps’ system to plug in video sites such as The Daily Show, Hulu, TED and iPlayer. What I propose is a more content specific view.

Instead of sorting the online, saved and streaming media by service or source, do it by show. this way you can even build in an AppleTV style purchasing and rental models. (Want the latest episode before it airs? Pay 99c.)

For online media let users pick the shows they want to keep track of and add them to a ‘non-live’ EPG. The TV can then go and look for sources online (Hulu, BBC) and provide a link to watch. You should categorise any downloaded or saved ‘live’ TV under the same system. The technology is already there to do ‘Season Passes’ in all the major PVRs perhaps it might be nice to include that too in case the streaming content is time limited (like on BBC iPlayer)?

Step 4 - Miscellany

In the same way you can add a hard disk for the PVR functionality, allow a slot for a DVD or Blu-Ray drive on the side of the screen and when there’s a disk inserted provide the option to play it from the main menu.

I think consoles should still be external to the system, but perhaps detect when you’re getting a signal down the HDMI cable and automatically switch, like VHS players did over SCART in the good old days.

Perhaps you might want another HDMI port for input for plugging in PCs or video cameras, but let’s not make this into a ports arms race, this is about simplifying the TV experience.

You’ll want a single optical audio out, that when connected turns off the screens internal speakers. I hate having to change both the TV source and the audio source on a 5.1 amplifier. There’s a nice side-market in simple compatible speakers here as well.

Step 5 - The Remote

Remote-wise we probably want to keep thing simple, I have no interest in either the ultra simplicity of the Apple Remote or the horrendous programmability of an All-in-one, Harmony or similar.

So:

  • On/off
  • Volume up/down
  • Navigation Left/Right/Up/Down
  • Select (Play)
  • Back (Stop)
  • Pause (live TV)
  • Record

Optional

  • Channel up/down (old school)
  • Main Menu (perhaps a button to jump to each section of the main interface)
  • An ‘classic’ radial iPod wheel for list scrolling
  • A way to enter text for searching, although an on screen keyboard would probably be fine as it’s a limited use-case

Step 6 - The Onscreen Menu System

An AppleTV-like Main Screen

On Now / Broadcast

  • EPG for the currently installed live source
  • Ability to record future programming to internal PVR

Movies

  • Film on Network Storage 1
  • Film saved from broadcast 1
  • Film on Network Storage 2
  • Film on Network Storage 3
  • Search by film name to rent or stream

TV Shows

  • Show Name 1 (containing Downloaded, saved, streamable and purchasable episodes)
  • Show Name 2
  • Show Name 3
  • Show Name 4
  • Add Show

Disc (not there when no disc inserted)

Console (not there when console not attached)

Settings


Can this be that hard? We need to simplify media again, at least enough so my mum can use it.

The key phase that we’re in is the transition between channels of programming and individual content. This is the mess we’re in.

I would definitely pay the extra to the first manufacturer to put this together. I can’t believe that I’d be the only one. Perhaps Boxee will get there if they’re able to embed into TVs, but Im tired of so many little boxes around the screen.


2010